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2018-19 Rink Wrap: Brian MacLellan

Now that we’ve covered the players and the coach, it’s time to wrap things up with the guy at the top, Brian MacLellan

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Now that we’ve wrapped up the players, it’s time to turn our attention to the big man himself, the architect of the 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Capitals (and the non-Cup winning 2018-19 Capitals)... GM Brian MacLellan.

Q1. Brian MacLellan will have some tough decisions to make this offseason. Who do you think is the biggest priority among the players set to become RFA or UFA on July 1?

J.P.: Nothing happens in a vacuum - not re-signing an RFA like Jakub Vrana or Andre Burakovsky, not re-signing a UFA like Brett Connolly or Carl Hagelin… and not extending a Washington Capitals Legend like Nick Backstrom or Braden Holtby, both of whom can re-up with the club on July 1, a year ahead of when their respective current contracts expire and they would become <gasp!> unrestricted free agents. So while it’s easy to say that locking up Vrana (who scored 23 even-strength goals in 22-year-old season, his second full campaign in the League) is the top priority, I’m sure that Mac and Donald Fishman are looking a bit further down the road before approaching this summer’s crop of free agents to figure out how it’s all going to fit together and keep this roster in the contender status that it’s been in for more than a decade.

That said, Vrana isn’t going anywhere (that’s a big “R” in RFA), and given the lack of high-end skill up front in the organization, I’d think that trying to keep a scorer like Connolly (or maybe even Burakovsky) would take precedence over locking up a solid possession bottom-sixer like Hagelin. But Connolly’s terrific season may have priced him out of the Caps’ plans, and Burakovsky’s disappointing campaign may have been enough for the team to move on from the once (still?) promising winger. All of which is to say that I have no idea where the Caps are in their thinking on these guys, but I’m confident that it’s all part of a larger vision to which we, unfortunately, are not privy.

Peerless: I don’t know if any decision is more of a window into the Caps’ thinking about what team they want to be than the situation among forwards UFA’s Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin, and RFA Andre Burakovsky. Combined, their aggregate salary cap hit this past season was $8.5 million. If the Caps want to hold the line on this number, then I would think at best they could keep only two of this trio. And the three are three different kinds of players. Connolly has thrived in the Caps’ system as an offensive player (and that might be something unique, not transferable to another club), but he does not play special teams (70 seconds per game over the last two seasons on the power play, next to nothing on the penalty kill), so his role has boundaries.

Hagelin is one of those “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” sorts of players. He contributes a combination of speed and penalty killing abilities that the others don’t, but he is not an adept finisher and is not an especially physical player. And, he is teeing off on the back nine of his career (he will be 31 in August).

Burakovsky is a player with the kind of talent that any coach would like the chance to unlock. He’s a smooth skater, handles the puck well, can contribute in the clutch. But under the word, “inconsistent,” in the dictionary, you will find his picture. The word “enigma” also applies. He turned 24 years old this season – still young by NHL standards – but he has 328 games of NHL experience. If you think that is common, he finished the season as one of only seven skaters who finished this season having played in 325 or more games by this, their 23-year old season. He is at the point where his talent on paper needs to be convertible to production on the ice, but as a restricted free agent, the Caps would be taking a gamble, and a significant one, to qualify him as an RFA, let alone give him a raise.

Rob: J.P. is right, none of this happens in a vacuum and each move impacts the other potential moves (and moves in subsequent year), but when we ask who is the biggest priority, there’s no need to overthink it. Who’s the most important guy to figure out of the current free agent crop? No question, it’s Vrana. High-end skill is the toughest thing to find, and the variable that does the most damage to any team’s salary cap. They need to figure out what he’s going to cost, make sure they get it done, and then build the rest around what’s left (obviously with an eye on what they anticipate going forward). If that means Connolly and/or Hagelin and/or Burakovsky get priced out, so be it. Vrana is the only guy on the list that has shown the ability to carry the scoring load when the veteran crop eventually (right?) starts slowing down, or even leaves the organization. He’s the priority.

Becca: I agree with Rob here (which usually makes me pretty cranky but I’ll stomach it for now) - Vrana is the priority, simply because he’s got the most talent, the highest ceiling and is still in a position to be cost-controlled for a bit longer. That said (and as was noted above), he ain’t goin’ nowhere this summer, so the question becomes how much does he get rather than does he get anything... and that (as was also noted above) depends on what happens with the other potentially departing players.

The trio of Connolly, Burakovsky, and Hagelin is a really interesting one and to parse because of how different they all are, both in skill set and point in their career/career potential. Of the three, I think Hagelin is probably the lowest priority simply because of age - as Peerless notes, he’ll be 31 this summer and will be just one of many forwards in that age bracket available as free agents. Not to say that he’s easily replaced, because he does bring stuff to the table (speed, strength in puck possession, etc.) that others likely do not, but the focus should be on younger players first and then on complementing with veterans.

So that narrows it down to Burakovsky and Connolly, and the biggest issue for both is cost - is Burakovsky worth the raise he’ll get just being qualified? Is Connolly worth the raise he’ll definitely get after a career year? Between the two I might lean toward Burakovsky, simply because I think he’s got a bit more raw talent, but only if they can do with Burakovsky what they did with Connolly in the past (not qualify him and then sign him at a lower rate as a free agent).

Q2: Outside of re-signing players, what do you see as being the team’s biggest holes to fill this summer, either via free agency/trade or promoting someone from Hershey?

J.P.: Depending who stays and who goes, the lack of depth among top-nine/scoring forwards is a bit concerning. To be sure, these are hockey’s “first world problems” when you’ve already penciled in Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and presumably Vrana (perhaps Connolly as well). But to win these days, teams need at least three viable scoring lines, and it’s not hard to see a scenario in which the Caps are stretching to fill that out.

Peerless: Bottom six forward. It is not glamorous, but the Caps lost heart-and-soul player Jay Beagle to free agency and lost Devante Smith-Pelly to the Stanley Cup aftermath going into this season. Both were critical to the Caps’ success in 2018, and the team never really seemed to settle on a combination that provided the stability and glue to allow the rest of the operation to function well. Players who could have filled the role did not. Chandler Stephenson, instead of assuming more responsibility, regressed; and Burakovsky, who was essentially demoted into a role in which he should have dominated, sleepwalked through the season. Complicating the issue is that both are restricted free agents (Stephenson being arbitration eligible). I don’t know that Hershey will be a source of any relief here. In a deeper system, a player like Axel Fjalby-Jonsson, who started the season in Hershey but didn’t finish it there, or anywhere else in North America, might not be spoken of in terms of possibly earning a roster spot. Add in that Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin could be elsewhere next season, and both Nathan Walker and Riley Barber are Group 6 unrestricted free agents, there seem to be holes here to fill.

Rob: Agree with J.P. and Peerless that it’s a bottom six forward. I’m flexible on the type of player they pick up--ideally they would pick up a guy that can both score and penalty kill, but those guys aren’t cheap and usually aren’t considered depth guys. Ultimately it’s more likely they can find a guy that can replace what Hagelin brought when he joined the team. The fourth line and the penalty kill had been spotty (at best) throughout the first ⅔ of the season, and the Hagelin addition really put that in high relief. Expecting any of the guys that have already been with the team to step up seems optimistic, but a few of them are young enough that it’s conceivable (and my money would be on Travis Boyd for a breakout / step forward season among the incumbents). Finding the next Connolly-type contract would be huge.

Becca: I’m actually going to go rogue and say that defense is a bigger issue (but just by a small amount) than forward depth. Brooks Orpik is likely gone; it’s looking more and more like Matt Niskanen is as well. That leaves behind a really green blueline, and while I’d like to see more of Jonas Siegenthaler - I was really impressed by him this season - and Michal Kempny will be back, I think the Caps need to bring in another veteran D to help bridge the gap as the team’s next group of young blueliners moves up.

Q3: How would you grade MacLellan’s overall moves in 2018-19?

J.P.: Mac resisted the urge to get sentimental on Jay Beagle, used the superfluous Philipp Grubauer to knock off two-thirds of Brooks Orpik’s price tag, and added some useful pieces at the bottom of the roster in Nic Dowd, Nick Jensen and Dmitrij Jaskin (but see yesterday’s discussion on Jaskin). He promoted the assistant coach that he was able to keep around to help win a Cup (a point lost on many), and pulled off the underrated feat of winning a division in the wake of a championship. Where this team fell short, you can point primarily to injuries (Michal Kempny and Oshie), coaching (again, check yesterday’s discussion of Todd Reirden) and underperforming (Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen, for example); where you shouldn’t point is to Mac - he did his job. It’s hard to give him less than an A-minus in my book.

Peerless: There are things you can control, and there are things you cannot. Sometimes you can mitigate the latter by anticipating problems, but the ability to do that has limits. That said, it is hard to find fault with Brian MacLellan in matters he could control over the past two seasons. He had a plan, was not shy about executing it, did so faithfully within the limits of the salary cap (bye, Jay Beagle… bye Philipp Grubauer), and managed to avoid the crippling bad move that can negate all the other good work that gets done. The things he could not control – the injury to Michal Kempny most notably – undermined much of his work. One wonders what a defense that had Kempny in it for the postseason, along with late-season acquisition Nick Jensen, would have been able to do instead of the combination of youngsters Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler, who showed promise but were not quite up to the task (something that could be said for almost all the skaters).

I’m of the firm belief that despite the league marketing players like Alex Ovechkin Sidney Crosby, and Connor McDavid, the NHL is, like all salary-capped leagues, a general manager’s league. Those who can manage in the short term to fill holes and manage in the long term to preserve a core and provide a consistent infusion of talent from below are most successful. Sometimes, trade-offs between short and long term are necessary to take advantage of the narrow window of opportunity to win a championship or two. In that respect the status of the farm system is of some concern. Also a bit disturbing is how the end-game in the relationship with Barry Trotz was handled. Perhaps it was unavoidable, but it still did not quite sit right. Overall, though, Brian MacLellan has managed aggressively and effectively in giving the Caps the best chance to win now. I’d give him an “A-minus.”

Rob: Agree with J.P. and Peerless here, A-minus. As far as the on-ice roster there’s really nothing else you could have asked of him. The team undoubtedly had enough talent to make another run for a potential repeat. Injuries and underperformance were an issue (and Kuznetsov most certainly deserves a mention on the latter) thwarted all that, but BMac isn’t lacing ‘em up anymore. The only thing holding him back is the coaching decision. Obviously we don’t know how the conversations went down, and how much the money was the obstacle to bringing Trotz back, but the team didn’t have the hallmarks of an especially well-coached team all year. I can forgive much of the regular season (the Caps didn’t exactly look stellar during the 2017-18 regular season), but the coaching staff had zero answers for the ‘Canes forecheck in the playoffs and was too slow to give Siegenthaler a regular spot in the lineup (including moving Carlson to his off-side before giving him a natural lefty to play with). All coaches have a shelf life and maybe Trotz had reached his in DC (and almost surely would have by the end of year five), but the organization as a whole didn’t do a good enough job anticipating the loss and bringing in quality assistants to help soften the blow, and it ultimately cost them.

Becca: A-minus. I’m continuously impressed by his ability to identify players that will fit the Caps’ needs and make a deal that most of the time looks like a win. The Orpik/Grubauer situation was played to perfection, the depth players were brought in with low price tags so even the ones that didn’t fully pan out (for whatever reason) didn’t cost the team much... all good things. The only negative is what others have noted, and that’s in the coaching. I’m not even close to being ready to give up on Reirden yet but the optics of the Trotz situation weren’t great (although how much of that was him and how much was a budget set by ownership, we don’t know) and I’m not sold on the assistants added to the staff. But all in all, another solid season to add to an impressive overall body of work for Mac.